GAA Football

John Morrison says this is all about All-Ireland for Mayo

Mickey Moran and coach John Morrison almost led Mayo to All-Ireland glory in 2006 

THE most impressive aspect of ‘Pillar’ Caffrey’s shoulder charge into John Morrison’s back before the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park was the cool reaction from the Armagh man.

It was as if Morrison was anticipating some kind of physical contact after Mayo famously commandeered the Hill 16 end for their warm-up routine. To the Dubs, it was their holy ground. As Caffrey’s players ran onto the field and saw Mayo at their end, all hell broke loose. Even though the Sky Blues ended up completing their warm-up at the Hill 16 end, their routine had been broken. Mayo had stolen a march on their rivals before the ball was thrown in. 

Morrison took Caffrey's sly shoulder in the back with all the nonchalance it merited. It was exactly the reaction Caffery didn't want or expect. Mickey Moran and Morrison spent a memorable year in the west. They guided Mayo to their first Connacht title success since 2004 and, after needing two games to see off Laois, they went into their All-Ireland semi-final showdown with Dublin as big underdogs.

Morrison, a highly respected coaching figure in GAA circles, laughs at the memory of being shoulder-charged by Caffrey prior to the game. Asked if Mayo colonised Hill 16 by design, Morrison smiles: “Well, I can’t divulge that. But if you think of it, if you break somebody’s routine… If you remember, Dublin’s routine in 2006 was the most choreographed warm-up you’d see in any sport.

“And it was upset because we went to Hill 16. There is no law to say that Dublin can warm up at Hill 16. We had the choice of ends against Laois. Next match was Dublin. So we went to warm up at Hill 16. And Dublin lost their temper…”

The fact Mayo led 0-9 to 1-5 at the break seemed to justify their pre-match mind games. But the Dubs produced a barnstorming third-quarter and racked up a seemingly unassailable seven-point lead thanks to the fantastic wizardry of Alan Brogan.

Mayo appeared gone. All of a sudden, their pre-match shenanigans seemed a bad idea foolhardy. Morrison recalls: “Mickey and I did a few things that year - and I did it with a team in Dublin recently: what do you do with leads?

“You would pull one team together and say: ‘Right, there are five minutes left in a game and you’re seven points up. Deal with it'. Then you go to the other team and say: ‘You’re seven points down and there are five minutes to go. Deal with it'. It happens all the time. The team with the seven-point lead, you find they start to show-boat. 

"I did this one night and the team with seven points up, I threw the ball in, the guy caught it and he ran the length of the field - no team-work. The team that were seven down busted a gut and were the better, team but they were pulling their shots. Now, do it with a four-point lead or a two-point lead…

“People say a two-point lead can be dangerous,” adds Morrison.

“I would say anything between a two-point and an eight-point lead is a dangerous lead. Against Dublin in ‘06, we got a goal with time left.”

Andy Moran blasted home in the 57th minute to give Mayo hope: “We got the next score after that, Dublin’s management team got up and started arguing with one another, the crowd stopped singing ‘The Rare Oul Times’ and it was eerie. It put the Dublin players off. The Mayo boys knew in their hearts and we knew along the line that Dublin’s lead was now catchable.”

If the Dublin players were feeling the pressure in the closing stages of what turned out to be one of the most epic comebacks in recent Championship history, so too did the Dublin management team: “Dublin made it easier for us because their midfielder Shane Ryan was so powerful - he was their best player on the day,” says Morrison.

“He was shifted out of midfield and then they took him off. We put David Brady in midfield, but we didn’t kick it to him. Every time Ciaran Whelan thought he was going to dominate the midfield, we’d kick the ball to our wing half-backs.”

In the 68th minute, Crossmolina’s mercurial star and man-of the-match Ciaran McDonald raced the length of the field to finish off a sweeping move that won it for Mayo. Under pressure, substitute Kevin O’Neill off-loaded to McDonald and, from a ridiculous angle, Mayo’s blonde bombshell found the target to sink the Dubs.

But there was no fairytale ending for Moran, Morrison and Mayo that September. A few weeks later, Kerry blitzed them in the final: "Mayo weren't emotionally ready for that final," says Morrison.

David Clarke, Andy Moran, Keith Higgins, Alan Dillon and Barry Moran are the surviving members of the ’06 side who will feature in Stephen Rochford’s All-Ireland final squad against Dublin on Sunday. Ten years on and still no cigar for the westerners.

Morrison feels Mayo can overcome Dublin on Sunday to win their first All-Ireland title since 1951 - but says the smart money has to be on Jim Gavin’s ‘Invincibles’, who are seeking to record their 28th consecutive win in league and Championship.

“Mayo have a quality side and a reasonable enough bench,” says Morrison.

“The bulk of their squad has won an All-Ireland title, albeit at U21 level. Deep down, I don’t think they’re afraid of Dublin. Secondly, there’s a togetherness there... They had Pat Holmes as manager last year, but the players decided Pat wasn’t good enough to take them to a senior title.

"Technically, they got rid of him, which meant there was a lot of rancour and ill-feeling and the perception that the players shafted their manager. The way I look at is, it has brought them together because they’ve accepted their responsibilities on trying to win the title. I also think this is the first time that a Mayo team is not doing it for the county or their families, they’re doing it for themselves.

“They have a disciplined approach. Their management team of Donie Buckley, Tony McEntee and Stephen Rochford are a very strong group of people. With Tony, you know exactly what he’s thinking - good or bad - when he speaks. And Donie Buckley is the same. So there’s a solid discipline in them.

“They have focus because they had a poor National League, but they managed to survive. They had the discipline not to go down. They lost the Connacht title and people couldn’t understand why. My argument is that Mayo aren’t even thinking of National League titles or Connacht titles - their focus is the All-Ireland. They didn’t want back to Croke Park - they got back to Croke Park for a title. They didn’t need another Connacht title and they didn’t need a league title.

“Their year is all about the All-Ireland title. In previous years, Mayo have been unlucky. This year, they have been lucky. They were lucky to survive Division One. They were lucky against Tyrone and Tipperary, so maybe luck is on their side.”

They are the factors for a Mayo victory, but Morrison's head tells him Dublin. Morrison has happy memories of his time in Mayo and Mayo people: “That’s why," he says, "our Lady of Knock went to Mayo.”

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